French grandeur was the backdrop for Maori tikanga yesterday, as a mummified head was formally returned to Te Papa representatives.

Underneath chandeliers at Rouen city hall, Kataraina Pitiroi's karanga cut through the high-ceilinged hall.

Her calls fell as the museum's director Sebastien Minchin carried a black-shawled case, which held the toi moko head, which he placed before the New Zealand delegation, which included kaumatua, Te Papa chief executive Michelle Hippolite, New Zealand Embassy staff, the mayor of Rouen and French senators.

Afterwards, Mr Minchin told the Herald he had been extremely nervous about his part in the ceremony.

"It's given me grey hair. It's the culmination of debate, and, indeed, battle to achieve this result."

Museums in France had resisted the repatriation and a former culture minister in 2007 had stopped repatriation, saying it contravened heritage laws.

A new law was passed last year to allow restitution to take place.

Before the ceremony started, Te Herekiekie Herewini, Te Papa's repatriation manager, explained that the ceremony would be like a tangi and during the formalities a korowai (Maori cloak) was placed over the head, similar to a practice on marae, which keeps bodies warm during mourning periods.

Miss Hippolite said many French people had asked why it was important to repatriate the head.

"This toi moko has been in the museum since 1875, a very long time for someone to rest here in Rouen.

"Our toi moko have been curiosities for people to enjoy, but they are still our ancestors."

She took time to acknowledge the work of former mayor Pierre Albertini and Catherine Morin-Desailly for championing the return of the heads.

"On behalf of the Maori people, I say thank you."

In Te Reo Maori, kaumatua Te Kanawa Titiroa acknowledged the length of time the head had slumbered in Rouen but today was the start of his journey towards his homeland.

After the ceremony, Mr Titiroa said the speeches had talked about the fight for repatriation since 2007 but for the head the wait had been far longer than that.

"They would have been waiting patiently for someone to come and get them. I've heard it's taken five or six years to get to this stage but the tupuna has been waiting for over 130 years so these last few years have meant nothing."

The trip to Europe had also seen the Te Papa group pick up skeletons, skulls and other bones from institutions in Norway, Sweden and Germany.

Rouen is going to keep a digital version of the head, which a spokesman for the museum said recognises both the history of human remains trafficking but which could also be used for future research.